Women in Conservation

In the Field and at the Policy Table, We’ve Come a Long Way

By Susan Lieberman
March 28, 2019

Some of the members of the WCS delegation at the 2016 meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Photo credit: ©WCS.

[Note: this is the fifth in a series of blogs by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) staff celebrating Women in Conservation in recognition of Women’s History Month]

On social media, I’ve been reading a lot about women scientists, and women in conservation. It sometimes seems as though there is so much more that needs to be done; but sometimes, we need to reflect on how far we have come. Last month, I was at a meeting in Jakarta with senior officials of the government of Indonesia — and I realized, with great joy, that we were all women around the table: the Indonesian officials, the WCS Indonesia Country Director, WCS Indonesian scientists and policy experts, and me.

We have come a long way. When I was working on my Ph.D. (in tropical ecology), and became pregnant, my thesis advisor told me, “just don’t bring that thing in here when you come to the lab, and don’t let it impact your work.” It did not harm my work, I completed my Ph.D. in five years, and with no help from my advisor I have had a marvelous, successful career in conservation (and my daughter has a brilliant career in international development/women’s reproductive health).

Lieberman speaks at CITES CoP17. Photo credit: ©WCS.

Today, a woman graduate student might lodge a complaint, but with a full scholarship and my field research completed, back then I didn’t dare. When I first started working on wildlife trade and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) 30 years ago, I was usually the only woman in the room in meetings with governments. When I went to work for the U.S. government, I was almost always the only woman at internal meetings, and at meetings with other governments.

The agency I worked for, the Fish and Wildlife Service, was supportive, and we even turned my status as the only senior woman at intergovernmental meetings into an advantage. At a negotiation with an Asian government regarding international trade in hawksbill sea turtles, the other government delegate kept ignoring me, and my male supervisor kept saying, “Dr. Lieberman is our expert; you need to address her.” That threw them off, and we did well in the negotiation. Fortunately, that country has moved forward as well. At another high-level negotiation, a government official looked at me and said, “Please bring tea.”; I replied, “Sorry, that’s not my job.”

Lieberman (in red) at the signing of the 2016 Buckingham Palace Declaration, which engaged the international transport sector in stopping wildlife trafficking and was led by United for Wildlife — a collaboration created by The Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, and led by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge (foreground). Photo credit: ©United for Wildlife.

Being a woman in a male-dominated field has always driven me to strive for excellence, and to devote my energy and passion to species conservation. But it’s great to see that things have changed; younger women can and should still work to prove themselves as individuals, but no longer have to prove that women can handle the work (either in the field or at policy negotiations). Across the globe, whether in Asia, Africa, or South America, women lead or have senior roles in environment ministries, and delegations at CITES and other environmental treaties — and young women scientists, field biologists, and policy experts now have many role models.

“Younger women can and should still work to prove themselves as individuals, but no longer have to prove that women can handle the work.”

Women are the majority on the WCS delegation to the CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP) in Sri Lanka this coming May, including several brilliant young women from our WCS programs in China, Indonesia, and Peru. I am excited and honored to help mentor these rising conservation stars (along with some great men as well, of course).

Susan Lieberman is Vice President, International Policy, at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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